Genre in Fiction

July 15, 2017

Genre categorises. It labels style and form. Literature has three genres: poetry, prose and drama (scripts). Within each of those over-arching genres, there are sub-genres and sometimes sub sub-genres, e.g. prose fiction/crime/who-done-it. Blame Aristotle (him again) he started it. I’m sticking with prose fiction sub genres in this post.  


Why do we need them? Life’s complicated but not that complicated. Stories repeat themselves, albeit with variations, and readers have preferences. They may want to lose themselves in romance or be scared witless. Genre’s how they choose from the millions of books out there. It’s shorthand.


I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes was marketed as a ‘thriller’.  Readers’ understand ‘thriller’ as shorthand for ‘this is an action story that puts the protagonist/state/family in sustained ‘thrilling’ jeopardy. It’s different from, say, a ‘crime’ novel where the emphasis is on the crime and its resolution. There may be thrills along the way but the overall dramatic arc of a ‘crime’ story is about the crime/criminal, not the ‘thrill’ of somebody/thing in jeopardy. We want to be the detective/gangster in crime novels (or be smarter), we want to be the lover in romances, but we fear for the protagonist/state/family in a thriller. I Am Pilgrim involved a crime but its style was all thriller.


Thrillers thrill, Crime intrigues and disturbs, Romance makes you cry and wish, Horror scares and shocks, Adventure and Action are exciting, Mysteries mystify and Suspense keeps you in tense expectation. Your tome probably fits into all those genres at some point because there’s bound to be some action, intrigue, surprise, sex, violence or whatever in those ninety-thousand or so words you’ve written. That’s the trouble with genres, they’re too narrow to fit the broad narrative of most novels. But you can’t ignore them.


Publishers and agents will ask the genre. Retailers will demand it. So, chicken or egg? It’s your choice which one comes first. Write to the specifics of genre, or write the novel you want and then decide which genre/s it best fits.


Don’t fret, unless your writing to specific genres it’s not an exact science. Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins can be found under love stories on amazon, but is described on other sites variously as a mystery, a psychological thriller and a crime story. In truth, it’s all of those things. Choosing which genre to label your novel with may therefore be a matter of preference or commercial opportunism. But there are dangers (see my last blog post).


On a creative level, you can use genre to your advantage. Readers are conditioned by genre to expect a certain style/form/outcome. It’s an opportunity to subvert those expectations and give them a more fulfilling/original experience. Done well, it will make your reader think. Done badly, it will disappoint and maybe stop them reading on.


In No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, you appear to have a thriller (a decent-but-poor man finds loot (opportunity) but the murderous mob’s close on his tail) and a crime story (aging sheriff investigating a series of murders). Genre expectations are that the ‘decent man’ will be involved in a thrilling climax, but there is none, and that the sheriff will get his man or fail bravely, but he doesn’t, he just retires to save his skin. You keep reading because: a, the writing’s so good; b, when the decent man dies you still hope the sheriff will catch the murderer; and, c, when the sheriff retires you realise you’ve just read a masterpiece about fear in the courageous.


In the last post, I said genres were a pain in the arse. They are because whatever genre you squeeze your work into will alienate or disappoint some readers. But we’re stuck with them. On the bright side, we’re not stuck with the same labels. New ones emerge all the time (chic lit for instance). So, embrace them as you must and invent them if you want.


Next week, unless I receive suggestions/requests that persuade me otherwise. I’ll do dramatic arcs.



Book review/recommendation: Troubles by J.G. Farrell


Amazon had this under the genres historical fiction and classics. I would have added ‘political satire’ (the clue is in the title and the date it was first published, 1970). It’s 1919. The Great War over, an Englishman, Major Brendon Archer, travels to Ireland to re-unite with his fiancé in the Majestic Hotel. She has changed and the crumbling Majestic no longer lives up to its name. Things are not as they once were. The characters are eccentric and the Majestic as metaphor for the British Empire is obvious but beautifully drawn and engaging. This is a soulful and surreal comment on the passing of an era—and its 70s legacy.


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